In Parashat Vayigash, Joseph and his brothers reconcile. After years of separation, after Joseph’s youthful narcissism, after his brothers’ selling Joseph into slavery, they meet once again. Now, Joseph is a ruler in Egypt, and the brothers are tradesmen seeking food during a famine.
It’s an emotive scene in a typically unemotive Tanakh. Joseph weeps. His brothers are speechless. Joseph’s sobs are so loud that even the Egyptians who had been sent from the room heard his wailing (Bereshit 45:2). The brothers lose their words because, as various commentators say, they are shameful and fearful, thinking: What if Joseph will still punish us for our past actions? What if he is the narcissist he was as a young man?
They have reason to suspect Joseph’s intentions. Until that moment in the story, Joseph has behaved like someone consumed with only his own needs and desires. Joseph accuses his youngest brother Benjamin of stealing in a set-up that Joseph himself orchestrates, and then demands that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his servant for the theft.
Joseph stops this behavior only when Judah, a leader among the brothers, does something that surprises Joseph. Judah will not repeat the error of his past. He will not sell his youngest brother Benjamin into slavery, as he did Joseph so many years ago. Instead, he offers himself up as a slave to Joseph: “Let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy” (44:33). His reason? He doesn’t want to hurt his father the way he once did – surely this time, his father would die of grief (44:31). Judah understands now what he didn’t understand when he sold Joseph into slavery those many years ago: his actions impact others. And at the very moment that Joseph realizes his brother has indeed learned from and taken responsibility for his actions, he is overwhelmed by emotion. He sobs and, overcome by Judah’s t’shuvah, forgives his brothers
Joseph not only tells them he forgives them: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither,” he articulates that he knows he is a part of a bigger story: “It was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (45:5). He knows, finally, that his whole life is not about him alone. After his words, Joseph shows them he forgives them with his actions: “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them” (45:15). Joseph is changed. He no longer sees himself as separate from. He is a part of Something Bigger. When he weeps with each brother, they realize his tears and words are authentic. They become able to speak, perhaps for the first time, about their shameful actions, and ask for the forgiveness Joseph has already given (45:15).
Joseph is changed. His brothers are changed. The parts of them that have been stuck in the past, the parts that sought revenge or dwell in shame no longer make their decisions for them: Joseph gives up his revenge, and his brothers give up their silence and speak about their past actions. How could they have transformed so dramatically? How could a reconciliation from such a hurtful and painful past take place?
Because all of them, Joseph, Judah, and each of the brothers, care more about their future relationships than about their painful pasts. They are willing to change and be changed. Judah is willing to change by not repeating his shameful past actions, and the brothers are willing to let go of the story that their brother’s narcissism justified their behavior. Joseph is willing to let go of the story that his brothers are uncaring and evil. They are willing to write new stories about themselves and one another.
So often we try to limit the people who have hurt us to their yetzer hara, to their evil inclination. I want to throw names at people who have hurt me, especially during my childhood. I want to call them “thieves of my childhood.” But it’s a lie. They are so much more than what they once did. And now I can say that my experiences have led me to a position in which, like Joseph, I get to save lives. Like Joseph and his brothers, I see that my story is part of a Story Bigger Than Me and so too the stories of the people I once called “thieves.”
Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers is possible only because he and they care more about their family’s future than they do about the past. So too for me. My own reconciliation with people who have hurt me is possible only because I care more about my future life and relationships than about the pain of my past experiences.
As we start this 2020 new year, may our present learning and growth give us the clarity we need to choose the future over the past. Amen.